Bali: Open for business

Indonesia reopens resort island to foreign visitors, but strict regulations threaten to keep tourists away for now

Bali's airport reopened to foreign visitors yesterday for the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic early last year, as the government of President Joko Widodo struggles to restart Indonesia's valuable tourism industry.

However, strict quarantine rules and cumbersome visa requirements, including finding a guarantor, threaten to keep visitors away at least for now, officials said.

And as at late Wednesday, airport officials said there were no international flights scheduled to arrive at Ngurah Rai International Airport.

Visitors from 19 countries, including China, India, Japan and South Korea, will be allowed to fly directly to Bali as well as the islands of Batam and Bintan near Singapore on short-term tourist visas, said Mr Luhut Pandjaitan, who as coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment is overseeing Indonesia's reopening.

Singapore is not one of the 19 countries on the list. In comments to the media, Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno refused to say whether the resort island of Bali would be open to Singapore holidaymakers before Christmas.

At stake is Bali's tourist-reliant industry, which in normal years could earn Indonesia US$10 billion (S$13.5 billion) in foreign exchange.

The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on Bali, with owners of shuttered shops, abandoned hotels and small businesses feeling jaded after earlier promises of reopening up to tourists failed to materialise.

Reopening the resort island was to "restore the economy of Bali" amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Luhut said in a press release on Wednesday.

That will take time, however.

Strict quarantine rules requiring visitors to stay in their hotels for five days might deter some travellers, officials here said.

"If the government sticks with a five-day quarantine, we will have no tourists," Mr I Gusti Ngurah Rai Suryawijaya, vice-chairman of the Bali Hotels and Restaurant Association, told The Straits Times.

"We are proposing three days. That's enough."

By comparison, Thailand's Phuket, which reopened in July, allows fully vaccinated visitors to roam the island while waiting for the all-clear from their test results.

Ngurah Rai Airport spokesman Taufan Yudhistira told ST there were no flights yet scheduled to arrive in the coming days.

Airport officials said yesterday that the hub is offering free landing fees for domestic and international carriers to boost traffic. The island is currently registering about 7,000 arrivals by air from other parts of the country.

But testing and quarantine protocols raise doubts whether the airport could accommodate large numbers of arrivals even if they were available.

By late yesterday morning, hundreds of chairs had been set out in the airport's cavernous arrival hall where holidaymakers would be expected to wait for at least an hour for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results before being escorted to buses that would ferry them to quarantine hotels.

"We are 100 per cent ready," Mr Taufan said.

To be sure, Indonesian officials had only ever planned on a slow start to the reopening.

Mr Sandiaga had said in earlier comments to the media that he expected only a handful of charter flights to ferry visitors to Bali during the first few days after the island's reopening. Still, only visitors who are fully vaccinated and can produce a negative PCR test result are allowed to visit.

So far, Bali tourism officials say no prospective foreign tourists have made bookings for quarantine for this month. Forward bookings for next month, however, total 20,000, Bali's governor I Wayan Koster said yesterday.

Extra hassles such as scheduling PCR tests and finding a guarantor for a visa are expected to delay travel plans, officials here said.

Reopening the airport marks an improvement of fortune from July, when Indonesia was the epicentre of the region's Covid 19 pandemic, triggering shutdowns in Java and Bali. Then, new infections in Bali alone numbered 2,000 a day, threatening to overwhelm the tiny hospitals on the island.

The rapid roll-out of vaccinations and a strict lockdown, which emptied restaurants and cleared the beaches for weeks, brought the outbreak under control. More than 80 per cent of Bali's adults are now fully vaccinated

On Wednesday, Bali posted 49 new cases and two fatalities.

"Tourism can take place," Mr Wayan, the governor, told media, adding that he was confident the island would be able to balance the local economy with keeping the residents safe.

"Tourism can take place... But controlling the Covid-19 pandemic is our shared responsibility."

• Additional reporting by Ni Komang Erviani in Bali

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2021, with the headline 'Bali: Open for business'. Subscribe